Sunday, October 02, 2011

Art Review : The Vorticists (Tate Britain 2/9/11)

What is the purpose of an exhibition? Usually, it comprises a number of art works brought together in such a way as to present a different perspective on the artist, movement, genre or collection. My preferred way to "do" an exhibition is to go round slowly, trying to understand each work on show on its own terms, then reading any explanatory cards and listening to further explanation on the audioguide. Then I buy the catalogue to read at my leisure, thus giving myself ample opportunity to understand the main themes that the curators wish to develop.

However, I left the recent Vorticists exhibition feeling that I was missing something, and it's difficult to identify exactly what the gap was, as this was an interesting and well-constructed show. Perhaps it was simply a lack of historical context in the exhibition itself, which was covered in greater detail in the catalogue.

Certainly in this case, context is all. The Vorticists may have been a largely British art movement, but they were entirely of their time and could not exist without the impact of cubism, futurism or the various strands of early 20th Century modernism. At the exhibition itself these themes were hinted at, but it needed the catalogue to fill in the background detail. I hope this doesn't presage a trend towards less information being on display in the exhibition hall itself.

Newcastle c1913
by Edward Wadsworth
Johanna and Leslie Garfield Collection
The Vorticists themselves were a mixed bag, dominated by Percy Wyndham Lewis. Of the paintings on display, his works and those of Edward Wadsworth are really the only Vorticist works of interest (that is, excluding  the works of David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson who never counted themselves amongst the Vorticist ranks). Wyndham Lewis's work has a rough, jagged energy which aggressively confronts the viewer. Many of his paintings are now lost, but his power - and the influence of cubism - is best seen in his Timon of Athens lithographs. Wadsworth is more restrained, yet his black and white woodcuts of northern towns combine a stark modernist vision of industrial Britain with immense sensitivity of execution.

However, the most powerful work on display for me was the sculpture of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. Both were deeply influenced by native sculpture reaching Europe from Africa and the Pacific Islands, and the way in which this was starting to be used by Picasso, Modigliani and others. Epstein was never formally part of the Vorticist group, although he did exhibit with them. The Rock Drill that confronts you when you enter the exhibition encapsulates the Vorticist aesthetic: modern, angular, aggressive and sexual. Meanwhile, Gaudier-Brzeska's Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound represents the High Priest of modernism as monumental, instantly recognisable, and decidedly phallic.

Vorticism's philosophy was encapsulated in the periodical Blast, only two issues of which were produced. It is undoubtedly Wyndham-Lewis's creation, pretentious, provocative and wilfully contrarian. The exhibition attempts - rightly - to put Blast centre-stage, but it is difficult to appreciate a wordy production in such a context. It is obvious that much effort has been made to display Blast's philopsophical, literary and artistic aspects in a coherent manner.

Ultimately, the Vorticists rage against the modern world was subsumed in the First World War. Their posturing appeared irrelevant in the context of the slaughter of the trenches. Wyndham Lewis and Wadsworth joined up and fought with distinction in the war, whilst Gaudier-Brzeska's death at the Front is commemorated in the second issue of Blast. Ultimately, the Vorticists were too derivative - and, let's be honest, not talented enough - to make a significant impact beyond British shores. Their art took from Cubism, their philosophy from Futurism and the pot-pourri of modernist groups trying to understand the new century. This exhibition is a worthwhile attempt to place them in their proper context.

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